Kevin Fedarko’s The Emerald Mile ($18, Simon & Schuster) is a rollicking, insightful and highly enjoyable tome that chronicles the legendary 1983 trip by river guides through the flood-ravaged Grand Canyon. Using the Biblical flows as, in the author’s words, a “hydrologic slingshot,” along with their vast experience and seeming lack of fear, Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek and Steve Reynolds set a speed record through the canyon that has yet to be broken by an oar-powered boat.
But Fedarko, a former staff writer at Time magazine and senior editor for Outside, wasn’t done with the Grand Canyon. Instead, he and his National Geographic colleague and Basalt-resident Pete McBride undertook a major endeavor to get to know it even more intimately, when they set out to walk the canyon’s entire 800-plus-mile length in 2015. Their intent was to draw awareness to the pressures—development, uranium mining, air traffic and increased tourism—being put on the country’s second most visited national park.
Both are working on books about the grueling ordeal—which Grua was the first in recorded history to accomplish—and part of Fedarko’s writing is to take place in Aspen this month, as a writer-in-residence with Aspen Words. Fedarko’s next as-yet-untitled work will also be long-form narrative nonfiction. (McBride has his own book coming out in October about the journey, as well as a feature-length film in 2019.)
Fedarko and McBride have years of experience with the Grand Canyon, but it was nearly all from the perspective of its agent of change, the Colorado River.
Neither appreciated that stepping away from the river “is to move into a very, very different part of the Grand Canyon,” he says. The original plan was for Fedarko and McBride to hike the mostly trail-less terrain between the river and the canyon rim themselves, harrowing ground that involved “bushwhacking through this matrix of cliffs and ledges.”
It didn’t take long on the first outing in such extreme environs—about two hours, in fact—for both to realize they had greatly underestimated what accomplishing the goal would involve. “We got horribly, horribly spanked on our first leg and had to pull out early,” Fedarko says. “We were considering abandoning the whole thing.”
And not without reason: Fedarko said he feared more than once this “largely vertical world” might cost him his life. “You’re moving along the edge of these precipitous cliffs, with 45-degree scree and boulder fields off of one shoulder and then a 300- to 600-foot drop off of the other shoulder,” he says. “Every step you take inside of that world, it’s just really, really hard.”
Joining a group that was, remarkably, attempting to do the entire hike in a single expedition, McBride and Fedarko, carrying packs they later understood to be much too heavy, didn’t even make it half of the 68 river miles from Lee’s Ferry to the confluence of the Little Colorado River with its big brother. And McBride had told him that was to be the warmup leg. “It took the canyon just five days to reduce us to drooling blobs of pain,” Fedarko says, describing impenetrable thickets of tamarisk, cactus and other flora.
But they were determined. Others were worried. The weather alone is otherworldly, with everything from blizzards to temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. And then there is the brutal, unrelenting terrain of the upper Grand Canyon. So the pair enlisted the help of veteran canyon hikers, people like Rich Rudow, one of a very few to through-hike the canyon.
Rudow and others helped them in numerous ways, including navigating particularly treacherous stretches, as this middle ground between water and rim mostly allows lateral progress on ledges, which range in length anywhere from a few hundred yards to a couple of miles. Then the hunt for another ledge would commence, via an upward scramble or a descent. Tributary canyons, and sub-tributary gorges, often interrupted this process, as did locating the food caches they had stored. The latter at times involved rappelling 2,000 feet down a slot canyon to the Colorado and then climbing back up.
Fedarko and McBride ended up hiking the entire length of the Grand Canyon in what they broke down as seven sections, over the course of 73 days in 14 months. They finished in November 2016.
Fresh water was a different story, one that involved seldom-seen springs and syringes. They used the medical devices to extract water from “potholes, these ephemeral puddles that form in the rock as a result of rain or melting snow,” he says. Such life-giving deposits, which “we survived on for large stretches,” may not be more than an inch deep and can be gone in a matter of hours.
And that was uncontaminated water. One of the goals of the excursions, which had support from National Geographic, was to document the incursions of development in the national park. Active uranium mines, as well as defunct ones, were “really weird and disturbing” to encounter in and near the Grand Canyon because “you’re in this wilderness environment, and all of a sudden you’re moving through an industrial zone,” Fedarko says. “There’s old machinery, [mine] shafts. There are blue-and-yellow uranium warning signs posted on the entrances to these shafts that are blocked off with iron bars.
“But it’s also the knowledge that the tailings from these mines are contaminating water that is draining into systems that feed directly into the Colorado River,” he says. “This is the river that is the sole source of water for a large chunk of the American Southwest.”
Uranium, with its slow radioactive decay, and the men, also slowly being decimated by the canyon, help to sum up the hikes, which were both comic and nearly tragic. Fedarko calls both an “apocalyptically bad idea.” 5:30pm, July 25, Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar, aspenwords.org